North by Northwest

North by Northwest is a thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock about an advertising executive in New York City who is mistaken to be a government agent and has to outrun foreign spies. However, the star of this movie was the famous introduction, designed by Saul Bass in 1959. This experimental sequence is often cited as “the first to feature extended use of kinetic typography.” The clean aesthetic, minimal design, and simplistic motion all added together create an incredible and suspenseful opening scene.

Starting with a dazzling green, North by Northwest jumps out of the screen with its burst of color and pounding symphony orchestra, as a harp plays in runs as a major set piece is revealed. A grid system, coated in grey, trickles into view and the words “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer presents” drift onto screen. The asymmetrical grid, flush with dynamic diagonals, heightens the dramatic tension this title sequence creates along with the booming brass in the background. The text then zooms away, while the names of the actors within the movie soar up into view along with a partnered white rectangle, traveling with them parallel. The text shown matches the grid system in place and elegantly fits within dynamic lines of Saul Bass’ system. Lastly, the movie logo slides into view, demonstrating Saul Bass’ emphasis on making the logo the center of the introduction’s attention. Soon, this brilliant green color fades away, allowing for a new scene to unfold.

As the green fades away, the inspiration for the grid system is revealed and the side of a skyscraper slowly replaces the once bright screen. This match dissolve connects the elements shown previously to the new scene that has just appeared and adds new meaning to the music and the reasoning behind the grid. The raucous horns now symbolize the bustling city shown distorted in the structured windows of the building. Sans-serif typography continues to levitate into place mimicked by the white rectangles that linger from the previous shots.  But soon after these names float by, the scene takes a turn.

Another dissolve overlays the grid over a large group of businesspeople, almost encaging them, though only for a second. Type continues to slide in, though this time horizontally, matching the absence of Saul Bass’ grids. This type also contrasts the direction of these people, tending to create dissonance between the scene, the type, and the music. This, in turn, benefits the rambunctious and hyperactive nature of a large city. The traffic of people shown escalates when the cuts become faster and faster, creating this montage effect Saul Bass is so often remembered for. The dissolves are replaced by jump cuts, and the angles become more and more odd, calling back to the diagonals in the original grid system, along with the ups and downs of the people walking. The scene ends with a final climax of the music, quickly building up in intensity and speed, ending with a bus closing its doors in a man’s face.

Lighting within the montage is generally pretty drab along with the color palette. The day is cloudy with a fog, and the colors emphasize the dull environment. Browns and grays litter the frame in stark contrast to the almost neon green we saw at the beginning of the trailer. The lighting is mostly natural, with no significant shadows being cast. This exacerbates the tension created by the montage and music, adding to the mood of the intro and creating a tone for the movie as a whole. The typography in particular is presented in a canted angle yet erected like the building it’s based on, bold and condensed like the city and its people.

The multimodality expressed in this introduction upholds tremendous value to film designers today, though the lack of syncopation disrupts the overall flow of the design. The music in the background, while fitting for the general introduction, lacks motion and editing cues in the final product. Words fly in and out almost at random and scenes change without any thought. Near the end, scenes do change when the words join together on several occasions, though these changes do not fit the musical cues at all and are generally asynchronous. With music cues also signaling cuts and motion, this introduction would be much more cohesive and pleasing to the eye.

This breathtaking title sequence highlights the dawn of modern motion graphics and is an inspiring introduction to the intricacies of modern motion design. The emphasis on simplicity, geometry, and asymmetry demonstrate the core of international design and the principles of the Bauhaus to a tee. As a graphic designer who is recently dabbling in motion graphics, I applaud Saul Bass and continue to uphold his legacy as one of the greatest designers of all time. His work on North by Northwest is genuinely part of what made the movie a classic in the first place.



Window distortion


High-angle, canted shot


Ending shot


Match-dissolve prison bars